Tom Gower of the Football Outsiders and Total Titans is one of the most insightful and funny writers on the internet. I can honestly say that I would read his work on the Titans even if I didn't have to. If you care at all about football or just good writing, read everything Tom does just on principle.
His insightful and measured tweets will both entertain and inform you. He was kind enough to trade questions and answers with me about Sunday's game. I'll link my interview on Total Titans when it posts.
Fix the Titans defense without acquiring new talent...and go!
TG: Without acquiring new talent? That's tricky. Does transplanting somebody else's brain to Zach Brown's body count? Brown's definitely playing like a rookie, especially in coverage, but if he develops could be the sort of cover linebacker they've lacked and needed since Keith Bulluck's decline.
To be fair, this is about how bad I thought the defense would be last year. If you want to take the optimistic view, they're capable of being a semi-credible defense (a) when healthy and (b) when they've been able to play in their base 4-3 personnel. The run defense (in base) has been non-terrible when they've had both Jurrell Casey and Sen'Derrick Marks at defensive tackle, and they could really use middle linebacker Colin McCarthy healthy from an ankle sprain he suffered Week 1. Yes, expecting full health is a fool's errand, but lack of depth is often one of the reason bad teams are bad teams.
Fixing sub package is a bigger problem and one that's been a constant problem. The Titans have given up 34, 41, and 34 points in the three games they've played sub package personnel (nickel corner Ryan Mouton playing 85+% of snaps). Now, with the Colts' lack of depth at receiver, the Titans will only be in nickel+ personnel situationally rather than regularly, so it's not as big a deal this game. They've struggled against the run and particularly the pass here, and I'm not sure what to do about it.
Linebacker is a bit of a hodgepodge right now with McCarthy, backup MLB Zac Diles breaking his leg last week, Brown looking very much like a rookie, Will Witherspoon looking old, and nobody else that attractive an option. One option would be moving starting corner Alterraun Verner to the slot and playing somebody else outside-Tommie Campbell played there throughout the preseason, though he's out this week. Rookie Coty Sensabaugh, who's struggled to get on the field, is the other option, and I'm not thrilled with that. No, the Titans will probably continue to struggle in sub package situations.
Do you feel the decision not to add a pass rusher was the single biggest mistake of the offseason?
TG: Well, they did sign defensive end Kamerion Wimbley. Yes, he's mostly a one-trick pony who doesn't have an effective counter move if your left tackle has a good kickstep and doesn't get beat by Wimbley's trademark shoulder dip move. It's likely the Titans would have been in the Mario Williams derby had Bud Adams not insisted they pursue Peyton Manning, and while Williams has underperformed expectations in Buffalo, he'd still be the Titans' best defensive end.
The other thing would have been to draft a pass rusher in the first round, perhaps Chandler Jones with their first-round pick instead of Kendall Wright. I would have been happy with that move considering the Titans' lack of top-level defensive players (no, paying Michael Griffin $7 million a year and Jason McCourty $8 million does not make the top-level defensive players).
Evaluate Kendall Wright's play for me. His advanced metrics are crap, but fans don't seem upset about him.
TG: Yeah, I don't get that. His advanced metrics are crap for a reason. He's dropped too many passes. He's struggled to win at times. In short, he's playing like a rookie receiver who's struggling to adjust to the NFL game. This isn't much of a surprise to me or to offensive coordinator Chris Palmer. I wish I could tell you most fans were happy because they realize he's sucked, but I think it's more that Wright is putting up traditional numbers (36 catches, over 5 per game). He's putting up traditional numbers because they've been throwing him the ball (55 targets). His catches have overwhelmingly been short-he has one gain of more than 20 yards, against the Steelers when the guy covering him fell down.
His role in the offense reminds me of that of Lavelle Hawkins last year, and he's spent time in that slot/F spot where Hawkins played and caught a bunch of unproductive shallow crosses. Wright looks more explosive than Hawkins, but for the most part I think he's been as unimpressive as his advanced statistics would indicate.
Is Munchak in trouble at all, or will Gray take the fall if 2012 continues to careen off the rails?
TG: Obviously not, because the Titans have won two games in a row after a rough start and are therefore going to take advantage of a tightly-packed AFC to finish 10-6, make at least a wild card and possibly win the division if the Texans falter, then go on a playoff run to win the Super Bowl. You know that's how things work.
Seriously, though, how much trouble Munchak is in depends on what sort of expectations the front office really had for the season, and I don't have a good grasp of that. I thought 7-9, plus/minus about 2 wins, was a reasonable expectation of their fate this year. Would doing that be enough to save Munchak? I've always thought he was an overpromoted position coach, and if they're looking to make a change, any sort of non-playoff finish could do that.
As to Gray's fate, I have no idea how he could keep his job given the disaster the defense has been this year. He's implementing his scheme and they've acquired more of the type of players he likes, and it's not working at all. I have no trust this organization will make any sorts of changes, though, unless they're blindingly necessary (in other words, more games like last week could mean they pay Chris Johnson his $10 million salary next year). I wouldn't count on Chris Palmer coming back, either; I've suspected for a while they've been grooming quarterbacks coach Dowell Loggains to be offensive coordinator someday.
Were you comfortable with Locker's play before he went down?
TG: Sort of, in that he mostly appeared to be executing the offense as best he could. I saw very few signs of high level quarterbacking traits, things like throwing with anticipation, excellent ball location, or even looking first one way and then throwing somewhere else. He looks to me like a guy whose ceiling is around Donovan McNabb-a low completion percentage, low interception percentage passer with scrambling ability.
Your thoughts on matching up with the Colts?
TG: It'll be an interesting matchup. The Titans will give up points. They've done so in every game this year. They're 31st in DVOA against #1 wideouts (hello, Reggie Wayne). They're 30th in DVOA against tight ends (hello, Dwayne Allen and Coby Fleener). Andrew Luck will be relatively untroubled by the pass rush and make throws.
Offensively, Chris Johnson's production is overwhelmingly a function of the offensive line's blocking. The offensive line has been able to create space three of the past four games, and it seems likely they'll be able to do it against the Colts. After last year's struggles, I don't fully trust Chris Johnson to take advantage of that space, but he should be able to put up some yards.
In the air, we saw late last season the Titans struggle to win against the Colts' cover guys. I've already covered Kendall Wright; I don't see his presence as fundamentally changing how good the Titans' receiving corps is. Kenny Britt early last season put up insane efficiency numbers; this year, he's down with Wright at the bottom of the league. Part of that is physical, but a lot of that is rustiness. While he eventually caught the game-tying score, he really fought the football against the Steelers and only had one catch for four yards after the first drive against the Bills. They really should be able to score enough to beat the Colts, but I'm not absolutely convinced it will happen.